Recently, I had the displeasure of driving a 1986 BMW 535i for a few days. It was displeasurable because it made me realize the massive mistakes I’ve made in my own recent BMW purchases. I had no idea you could get a great driver’s-car BMW without the typical modern BMW maintenance headaches — and, like many, I’ve realized this far too late.
The 1986 535i hailed from the distinct shark-nosed era of BMW design. Unlike today’s BMW models, with their lighter steering and numb handling, there’s no questioning this chassis (designated the E28) as anything but a BMW. The 535i has a peppy 6-cylinder engine, and it was used as the basis for the first-generation BMW M5. While the M5 is a much rarer car, and quite collectible, the 535 was sold in much higher numbers — and it was once a bargain beater that was relatively easy to find. Unfortunately, it appears that’s no longer the case.
Currently on Autotrader, there’s only one E28 chassis 535i for sale with a manual transmission in the entire United States. It’s a higher-mileage car that looks solid, though it’s somewhat cosmetically challenged — and it’s currently offered at $9,500. This is roughly the same average asking price as a 2008 BMW 535i — and at that price, it actually seems like a bargain. Just one month ago, a concours-winning 1988 535i with 80,000 miles sold at auction for $50,000 on Bringatrailer, which isn’t far behind the value of a similar-era M5.
After picking myself up off the floor following that result (along with the seller, I’m sure), I decided I needed to understand why someone thought an aging 182-horsepower BMW sedan was worth $50,000. A friend of mine had one he was fixing up for resale, and he gave me a crack at it once it was finally sorted. I have to admit, I wasn’t disappointed.
The first thing that struck me was the simplicity of this car. I had associated BMW with needless technical complexity for so long that I couldn’t picture the Bavarians building a car without some fatal flaw or annoying gadgetry. Even more impressive is how this simplicity never makes the car feel primitive. It has all the comforts, necessities and BMW driving experience — without technology getting in the way.
My video goes into much more detail regarding how the 535i impossibly pulls off a modern feel with caveman-level tech — but to summarize, it feels like magic. BMW really had a strong foothold in the luxury-performance game while the rest of the competition was just getting started (or, in the case of U.S. luxury brands, decades away from being real contenders). During this time, BMW was above all the gimmicks, like fine Corinthian leather or goofy “Knight Rider”–inspired gauge clusters, and instead they focused on selling simple, comfortable and precise-driving cars — without the need to deliver much else. Cup holders? Not a chance. iDrive??? Nein, Danke!
This simplicity makes the 535i quite serviceable, and highly durable. The car I drove had 214,000 miles on it — and you’d never know. It was devoid of any body rattles, it still felt tight all around, and the cosmetics were also holding up pretty well. Clearly, this BMW was well looked after — but the E28 535i also lacked any kind of fatal engineering flaw that could fail at any moment, sending it directly to the scrap heap without warning. This theme of critical engineering snafus has become so common with modern BMWs — and really, just about every auto manufacturer. Unfortunately, it’s getting impossible to avoid these problems, given the infinite level of complexity of most new cars.
It’s safe to say BMW will never sell a simple car like this in the USA ever again. Since this era of BMW has languished in cheap beater price brackets for so long, there are very few nice examples left — and those are now being jousted over with very aggressive checkbooks. Unfortunately, the rest of us can only watch from the sidelines and kick ourselves for not buying one sooner. Find a BMW 535i for sale
Tyler Hoover went broke after 10 years in the car business and now sells hamburgers to support his fleet of needy cars. He lives in Wichita, Kansas.
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